Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: November 2015

Playtesting RCAT


Last week I was invited to participate in a demonstration and playtest of the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset in Ottawa. RCAT has been developed by the (UK) Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and Cranfield University, and is intended as flexible, low-overhead wargaming system for military planning and analysis.You’ll find more on RCAT here and here (from Connections UK 2013), here (Falklands war operational commanders test, via the LBS blog), and here (in conjunction with a digital simulation, again from LBS).

DSTL.pngDefence Research and Development Canada are interested in seeing whether RCAT might be used to help refine the scenarios used for capability-based planning within the Department of National Defence. These scenarios aren’t based on current events, nor are they meant to represent actual planned operations. Instead they are intended to be broadly representative of the sorts of missions that the Canadian Armed Forces might be called upon to perform. They are thus intended to provide the Joint Capability Planning Team with plausible problems that might be  addressed by military means, enabling the identification and validation of various military capabilities.banner.jpg

To this end, the visiting RCAT team (Colin Marston of Dstl, Jeremy D. Smith from Cranfield University,and Graham Longley-Brown of LBS) had developed a version of RCAT that addressed an existing force development scenario—specifically, a hybrid warfare scenario that explored the ability of Canadian forces to operate as part of a larger coalition in a complex conflict environment running the gamut from high intensity combat to later stabilization operations.


RCAT design process


I headed up the Red Team, and proceeded to throw every plausible curve I could think of at both the Blue and Green players and the RCAT system itself. The sessions were very much a participatory seminar on the game’s design, as we discussed how RCAT modelled various kinetic and non-kinetic effects, how the system might be modified, and the extent to which it might offer insight into scenario design and capability issues. To this end, we gamed a few turns of everything from major campaign moves (days/weeks/months), through to tactical/operational vignettes (hours)—the former including one major surprise by me, and the latter including a very successful urban operation and airborne insertion by my opponents.


RCAT turn sequence (with apologies for the creases).


What impressions did I draw from all this?

I was impressed with RCAT. It is flexible and easy to understand, and can be easily modified (even during a game) to address issues and needs as they arise. The military outcomes all seemed highly plausible.  I thought the combat components worked better than the stabilization model, but then again the scenario was a challenging one. Moreover the political, social, and economic dynamics of stabilization are, in my view, much more complicated and much less well understood than the art and science of conventional military operations.

RCAT’s design lends itself to both training and analytical use—and possibly both at once. Many professional wargamers would suggest that analytical and training games are quite different things, and one should design a game to serve either one purpose or the other. I certainly accept that a game’s experimental design might be compromised by training requirements, and vice-versa. However, I do think there are cases where one can get two (simulated) bangs for one (very real) buck. Because of its elegant design it is easy to imagine RCAT being run as part of professional military education, while analysts use player behaviours to explore research questions of interest.

Game design and playtest sessions can themselves generate useful experimental data. The usual practice with many analytical wargames is the develop the game, playtest it to identify shortcomings, and refine the design. Having done this, the final wargame is conducted—and only then is data systematically recorded regarding the research question being examined. However, our RCAT discussions, although intended simply as introduction and game development sessions, themselves produced substantive findings relating to both scenario development and future Canadian Forces capability requirements. This suggests that we need to think about more systematically identifying insights generated by game design processes.

Scenario designers need to think seriously about politics. There were a few times in the force development scenario we were using where politically-appropriate behaviour by scenario actors threatened to compromise the ability of the scenario to fully explore the intended research questions. While RCAT is certainly not a role-playing or negotiation game, the adversarial (and coalition) nature of game play did force players to think critically about their interests and motivations.

Game facilitation skills matter—a lot. The RCAT team knew exactly when to play the rules-as-written, and when to tweak the system on the fly to best model the unfolding situation. They also had the wisdom and experience to keep the game flowing despite potential distractions (including incessant comments and suggestions from me!)—and, conversely, also knew when to slow things down to allow for a deeper-dive or extended discussion.

Such facilitation skills are not necessarily intrinsic to all wargamers. Indeed, if anything they’re more common among role-playing gamers, especially experienced dungeon/gamemasters, than among “grognard” conflict simulationists. That, however, is a PAXsims post for another day.

AFTERSHOCK holiday discount


What better way could there be to share the holiday spirit with friends and family than to gather around the gaming table in a desperate race to save lives in the wake of a devastating natural disaster?

To mark both the approaching holidays and the Connections Australia wargaming conference (December 14-15), AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game has been reduced in price to $89.99 through to December 31.

You can order AFTERSHOCK from The Game Crafter.



The following account of a recent AFTERSHOCK game was provided by Henning Liljeqvist.


The World Health Organization, in partnership with University of New South Wales, runs annually a five day intensive course in communicable diseases in emergencies. The course targets health coordinators and medical advisers working in humanitarian emergencies for Ministries of Health, NGOs, UN agencies, international organizations, universities, technical institutions and donor agencies.

In November 2015 we tried AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game for the first time and although it is not designed specifically for simulating communicable disease management, it was a great tool for presenting the complexities involved in coordinating a response to a complex emergency.

Our session included 25 students and we used one AFTERSHOCK game. On Rex Brynen’s advice, we used a camera image projected to a big screen in order to engage all participants at the same time. This worked really well, although we had to keep reminding participants not to stand in front of the camera. The image was clear enough that all details of the game could be seen by all in the room.

The class was divided into the four response components: Carana, HADR-TF, UN and NGOs and each of the teams was then divided in two: one playing group and one observing group. We ran a timed game over 2 hours and 15 minutes and changed over between playing and observing team members at the end of each full game turn. The initial instruction was for the observing groups to keep track of events and to make notes, but it very soon developed into a situation where the players and the observers collaborated with each other. This way the whole room was engaged for the whole game. As a result of this the game probably progressed slower than it may otherwise have done. We made it through week 3-4, but still just cleared relief points into the positive.

We ran an immediate debrief in which important lessons were discussed. The students made comment such as: “This was an eye-opener,” “This helped us to see how complex the arrangements can be in a disaster response,” “We saw the importance of cooperation between responding agencies,””Logistics and planning are a keys to getting relief resources to those who need it.”

I asked the students also to suggest ways in which the game might be targeted at communicable disease management. Suggestions included introduction of malaria management, facilitation for measles vaccination from the start (perhaps by spending OPs). Another suggestion was to include more complex considerations for groups at greater risk (socioeconomic status and other health indicators) to incorporate prioritization based on such concerns.

Henning Liljeqvist
Communicable Disease Epidemiologist (Biopreparedness)
Guest lecturer WHO/UNSW Communicable Disease Management in Humanitarian Emergencies

Review: Zenko, Red Team

Review of: Micah Zenko, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy (New York: Basic Books, 2015). 298pp. USD$26.99 hc.

Cover_lrg“Red teaming” is the practice of assuming the role of a potential adversary so as to expose vulnerabilities, stress-test plans, or anticipate some of an opponent’s possible actions. In this very useful book, Micah Zenko explores the application of red teaming in the context of military planning, intelligence analysis, homeland security, and the private sector. In doing so he goes well beyond describing red-teamers and what they do to offer his views on the strengths, weaknesses, and best practices of the approach.

Many readers of PAXsims will be particularly interested in Zenko’s take on military wargaming. One major portion of this chapter of the book is devoted to the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 wargame, in which Blue’s forces were resurrected following an innovative and devastating surprise attack by Red, and gameplay then resumed along largely scripted lines. (An excerpt from Zenko’s discussion of this was recently published at War on the Rocks, and can be found here.) I’ve previously argued that the shortcomings of Millennium Challenge were a little more complicated than he suggests, and Ellie Bartels has also taken up the issue of wargames and experimental design. More generally, Title X and similar large-scale doctrinal games (such as Millennium Challenge) are not the best examples of truly adversarial gaming to be found in the US Department of Defence. On the other hand, it is clear that many US  wargames are not very innovative or challenging, a shortcoming that has been taken up extensively in the past year by both senior officials and the professional wargaming community. Zenko doesn’t address any of this, although in fairness much of it has come since he likely finalized the book manuscript.

Having done both academic and policy work on intelligence assessment, I was also particularly interested in what Zenko has to say about the intelligence community. His focus here, as elsewhere in the book, is on explicit red teaming, wherein analysts are tasked with the devil’s advocate role of producing assessments that challenge conventional interpretive wisdom. His discussion of this is good. However, efforts to counter cognitive closure run much broader than red teaming alone, and include a variety of alternative analytical methods. Moreover, in my own experience some of the most effective red teaming is often not that generated by dedicated red team groups as a stand-alone exercise, but rather the internal debates that occur in a well-managed intelligence shop, where analysts are actively encouraged to assertively challenge their own work and that of their colleagues—regardless of seniority or conventional wisdom—in order to see whether other conclusions are possible from the same (or other) data. The quality and attributes of senior- and mid-level intelligence managers and the institutional culture within the organization are key to making this happen.

Overall, Zenko identifies six sets of best practices for red teams. I would have liked to have seen this discussion a little more deeply grounded in the growing research on predictive judgment, notably from psychology and decision science or predictive judgment—neither Richards Heuer’s classic work nor the the seminal research of Philip Tetlock and the Good Judgment Project on how individuals and groups predict the future are mentioned at all—but the ideas he puts forward are nonetheless valuable ones. Specifically, he argues that: there must be buy-in for the process from above; red-teamers much be outside regular analytical structures so as to maintain objectivity, yet inside enough to be aware and accepted; they must be fearless sceptics who know how to deliver their analyses with finesse and tact; they should be eclectic and unpredictable (“have a big bag of tricks”); senior officials must be prepared to hear bad news (or contrary analyses) and act on them; and one should red team enough, but not so much that it excessively demoralizes and distracts. Finally, he suggests that “the overarching best practice is to be flexible in the adaption of best practices”—a very, very important point indeed.

I equally liked his explicit discussion of red teaming malpractices, although I might have framed some a little differently. He cautions against ad hoc devil’s advocacy that is little more than token dissent; warns against mistaking red team outputs for policy; is critical of irresponsible freelance red treaming; and highlights the dangers of shooting the red team messenger when they deliver contrary views. He also stresses that red teams should inform, but not set, policy—that is, they should be but one input and perspective in the policy process. He concludes by making several recommendations for government, namely that big decisions should be red-teamed; red team efforts should be compiled to enable learning and sharing; red team instruction should be expanded, and military red team methods should be reviewed; and that red-teaming should be made more meaningful, and not simply a rubber stamp.

Overall, this book is a useful survey of the field. While primarily intended to introduce the topic to a general audience, even experienced red-teamers will find Red Team to be of considerable value.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 20 November 2015


PAXsims is pleased to present its latest round-up of recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers.



The latest—and long delayed—issue of Battles magazine finally arrived in my mailbox last week. In addition to all of its regular wargaming goodness, it contains several items that address the political and social diomensions of (simulated) warfare:

  • Matthew Kirschenbaum discusses gaming nuclear armageddon in “Let’s Play Global Thermonuclear War.”
  • Marc Guenette discusses the GMT COIN series in “You’ve Been Coined!” (previously reviewed at PAXsims here and here and here and here).
  • In “Among the People,” Joel Tappen discussed how his professional life has influenced, and been influenced by, the design of his game Navajo Wars.
  • John Burtt reviews BCT Command Kandahar (previously reviewed at PAXsims here).

Regarding game mechanics, Philip Sabin’s defence of “Igo-Ugo” systems is well worth reading too.



The Journal of the Philosophy of Games is a new open-access journal that will “explore philosophical issues raised by the study of games, with a particular emphasis on computer games.” You’ll find their call for papers for the inaugural issue here.


Wargames are often about exploring alternative histories, and using counterfactuals to examine conflict dynamics and test possible causal relationships. Philip Sabin has written about this extensively in Simulating War, and we’ve explored the issue a little at PAXsims too.

Given that, those interested in the analytical gaming will find much of interest in a recent issue of Security Studies 24, 4 (2015), which has a symposium devoted to counterfactual analysis. While none of the articles address gaming per se, they do tackle some of the bigger epistemological, methodological, and other issues at stake:

  • Symposium on Counterfactual Analysis: Note to Readers
    • Andrew BennettColin Elman and John M. Owen
  • Counterfactuals, Causal Inference, and Historical Analysis
    • Jack S. Levy
  • Counterfactuals and Security Studies
    • Richard Ned Lebow
  • “What If” History Matters? Comparative Counterfactual Analysis and Policy Relevance
    • Frank Harvey
  • What If? The Historian and the Counterfactual
    • Francis J. Gavin


The FBI was planning to roll-out a gamified website intended to counter violent extremism among youth this month. They’ve delayed this, however, amid a backlash within the Muslim community. According to the Washington Post:

The FBI has designed an unusual game-style Web site about extremism meant to be used by teachers and students to help the agency spot and prevent radicalization of youth, say Muslim and Arab advocacy groups who were briefed by the FBI on the program and fear it will foment discrimination against Muslims.

The law enforcement agency characterized the program, which appears to be the first aimed at the nation’s schools, as one that will keep youth from falling prey to online recruiting by terrorists. But some members of the Muslim and Arab advocacy groups invited to preview the effort complained that despite being described as combatting “violent extremism,” it frames the topic heavily through the lens of Islam and will lead to profiling of Muslim youth.

You’ll also find coverage of the issue in the New York Times and International Business Times.

Getting this right is difficult—games can risk stereotyping, appearing far too preachy, failing to connect with the target audience, or might even have negative and unintended consequences.

PAXsimsAlso on the issue of terrorism, the recent terrorist attackers in Paris generated much speculation that the attackers had plotted using the chat functionality of the PS4 game console:

[Belgian federal home affairs minister Jan] Jambon also reportedly warned of the growing use by terror networks of the PlayStation 4 gaming console, which allows terrorists to communicate with each other and is difficult for the authorities to monitor. “PlayStation 4 is even more difficult to keep track of than WhatsApp,” he said.

The gaming console also was implicated in ISIL’s plans back in June, when an Austrian teen was arrested for downloading bomb plans to his PS4.

Whether or not this turns out to be the case remains to be seen—initial reports like this often turn out to be inaccurate. However, concerns about game systems being used for nefarious purposes are not new—see, for example, the discussions here and here.


I’ll be travelling for the next several weeks, in part to attend the Connections Australia interdisciplinary wargaming conference in Melbourne on December 14-15. PAXsims updates may be a little less frequent during that time.


Game On! at Bishop’s University

Today I attended the Game On! conference on in-class simulation and gaming at Bishop’s University. The event was organized by Sarah-Myriam Martin-Brûlé and David Webster.

The first presentation by Kerry Hull (Department of Biology, Bishop’s University) explored the value of role-playing in the undergraduate classroom. Her simulations put players not in human roles, but rather in the role of biological functions (such as “Enzyme Man”). Such exercises are used to explore relationships, cause-and-effect, and complex regulatory pathways. She discussed a number of best practices:

  • establish trust and community among participants (including the use of Smarties to recruit classroom volunteers);
  • identify roles;
  • link the simulation to concepts.

She noted that physical environment matters, that it is worth repeating a simulation with different actors, and that students should be shown supporting data for the simulation. She also discussed the “too cool for school” problem, whereby games and simulation may seem too childish—but noted that participants generally see the value in the end. IMG_1319

Claire Grogan (Department of English, Bishop’s University) talked about her use of an innovative teaching technique in her course on war and literature. The challenge she faced was making WWI seem relevant to younger Canadian students. She addressed this by assigning each student the persona of an actual member of the Bishop’s community in 1914 who participated in the war, drawing upon the Bishop’s Remembers website and contemporary material from the student journal The Mitre. She wanted the exercise to be more than a lottery whereby students waited to find out what happened to their person, so she researched a rich dossier on each: their photographs, activities, writings, and so forth. This served to increase student identification with their assigned character, making them more real. These individuals were then followed through the war, with students updating their situation every two weeks based on historical records of unit deployments and the battles they were engaged in. Letters, other news, care packages, medals, or death telegrams were given to some students at the end of each class, reflecting the historical record. One particular sheaf of telegrams arrived in the middle of a class discussion of the Battle of the Somme. It sounded a sombre, and very valuable, experience for the class. IMG_1322

After a coffee break, Laurent Turcot (UQTR) made a presentation on digital humanities and Assassin’s Creed Unity. He started by noting that many historians are reluctant to use popular cultural representations of history (such as movies or video games) in the classroom—precisely because they are representations. However, video games often motivate players to learn about history. He was brought in by Ubisoft as a consultant on the game and its treatment of the French Revolution, to supplement their own (non-English speaking) historian in Paris. Specifically, he was asked to brief Montreal and Toronto staff on daily life in Paris during the revolutionary period—and to deliver it all in a single six hour lecture. He focused on a couple of quarters of the city, and offered an overview of architecture and daily life. He also drew up an encyclopedia of key individuals and events. He discussed his loss of control of material once he had produced it, and the risk of game developers using information differently than he intended. He briefly mentioned some of the political and historical debate the game generated in France. Finally, he noted the potential value of using such a game to provide a street-level view of what 18th century Paris looked like. However, there is little financial incentive for large commercial game publishers to produce educational spin-offs, so progress has been slow.

My own presentation looked at the various ways games and simulations have been used in my own classes. After a short discussion of the research on simulations and learning, I talked about:

  • quick and simple games;
  • using commercial games as reading/review assignments;
  • roleplay and negotiation simulations;
  • in-class demonstration games (of the “game show” variety);
  • matrix games;
  • online digital games designed for instructional use;
  • custom-designed boardgames (such as AFTERSHOCK);
  • student-authored games (including interactive stories, as well games on the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war);
  • complex and hybrid games (such as the Brynania simulation and the Syrian refugees in Lebanon simulation);
  • and games as extra-curricular activities.

I concluded with some thoughts on best practices and recommendations for further reading. You’ll find the full presentation here.


AFTERSHOCK with students at Bishop’s University.

Lunch was followed by an opportunity to try out some of the games. I ran a game of AFTERSHOCK, in which the players manage to overcome initial difficulties (and the accidental withdrawal of rescue workers from District 3 at a critical moment) to win the game with a few minutes left to spare on the clock. I also demonstrated the use of matrix games with a few turns of ISIS Crisis.

Overall it was a very good conference, and I’m grateful to the organizers for inviting me!

Food Chain Reaction: A Global Food Security Game

On November 9-10 the World Wildlife Fund and the Center for American Progress conducted a crisis game examining global food security, Food Chain Reaction. The game design was undertaken by CNA, with funding and technical support from Cargill and Mars.

According to a report on the simulation by Bloomberg:

The year is 2026. Flooding, worsened by climate change, has devastated Bangladesh and driven millions of hungry refugees to its border with India. Worried about unrest and disease, India asks other nations for help.

The U.S. and China respond — China with aid deliveries, the U.S. by boosting aid to Pakistan, which has its own food crisis that’s adding to India’s tensions. That assistance helps India focus on Bangladesh. The crisis recedes.

While the scenario was fictional, two food-price shocks since 2008 have prompted riots and fueled revolutions around the world. Experts say such disruptions are likely to occur more frequently as a warming climate plays havoc with global food production. That fear brought together representatives of corporate food producers, aid groups and governments for two days this week in Washington where they role-played a simulated food crisis. Bloomberg News also participated, representing how media would react to a crisis.

“With climate change, how we deal with food-security threats requires some serious rethinking,” said Kathleen Merrigan, a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture who participated in the exercise. “The ups and downs of prices and surpluses will only become more extreme.”

In the simulation — some called it the “hunger games” — at the U.S. headquarters of the World Wildlife Fund a fictional narrative was created to simulate real dangers that can emerge quickly as an increase in greenhouse gases contributes to volatile weather. In 2011, a real-life drought in Russia fueled food riots in North Africa that fed the Arab Spring uprisings, the aftermath of which reverberates in Syria today.

The fictional scenario began in 2020, with El Nino devastating crops in India and Australia, followed by a major drought in North America the following year.

Eight teams represented the U.S., European Union, Brazil, China, India, Africa, multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and World Bank, and global businesses.

Global food inventories declined through the first half of the simulated decade, with the Mississippi River flooding and drought in Asia. Food-importing nations in Africa saw demonstrations against rising food prices, while rising oil prices diverted more production to ethanol, further stressing supplies.

The crisis peaked in 2024, with record food prices generating unrest in Africa, South Asia and Ukraine. Both the U.S. and EU teams decided to repeal mandates requiring ethanol use, while Brazil ramped up production of all crops, including sugar used for biofuels. China invested in dams to protect scarce water.

‘Lifelike, Realistic’

The EU added a meat tax to discourage expensive livestock production and temporarily relaxed environmental regulations to boost its own production. The U.S. enacted a carbon tax, India taxed coal and support for a global climate deal was universal.

One point of the simulation was to create plausible scenarios to prepare participants to respond to real-life threats, said Kate Fisher, a game director with CNA Corp., a research organization that creates crisis simulations for the Defense Department and other federal agencies.

“It’s planning by doing,” forcing participants to make decisions and react to one another, she said. “We try to make it realistic. The players make it lifelike.”

These hunger games proved to be never-ending.

By 2027, the EU repealed its emergency measures on meat and regulations, as a series of large harvests built up supplies, though trouble persisted in Chad, Sudan and other parts of Africa that hadn’t invested in agriculture. Countries began working more closely with the United Nations to handle refugees from climate catastrophes.

New Normal

But prices, and temperatures, rose again at the end of the decade, showing how abnormal is expected to be the new normal in food and agriculture.

You’ll also find a report on the Cargill corporate website:

Over two days, the players – divided into teams for Africa, Brazil, China, the EU, India, the U.S., international business and investors, and multilateral institutions – crafted their policy responses as delegations engaged in intensive negotiations.

Cooperation mostly won the day over the short term individual advantage. Teams pledged to build international information networks and early warning systems on hunger and crops together, invest jointly in smart agricultural technology and build up global food stocks as a buffer against climate shocks.

In the face of a steep price spike with looming global food shortages in 2022, the EU at one point suspended its environmental rules for agriculture and introduced a tax on meat. Both measures were quickly reversed in 2025, as harvests went back to normal and tensions eased in the hypothetical universe.

The most eye-catching result, however, was a deal between the U.S., the EU, India and China, standing in for the top 20 greenhouse gas emitters, to institute a global carbon tax and cap CO2 emissions in 2030.

“We’ve learned that a carbon tax is a possibility in years ahead,” acknowledged Stone. “But before we can consider moving ahead with a measure like that, we must study it and understand it much better. We have to avoid sudden market distortions and unforeseen consequences.”

Stone said he was impressed with the complexity of the game and the second and third order consequences of some of the decisions that were taken. “Take the meat tax Europe wanted to impose, and think through that. What meat are you going to tax – does that mean poultry and beef or aquaculture as well? Where do you levy the tax, where does the money go, what are the unintended consequences?”

‘Not just putting out fires’

The game was built over the course of months, with maximal realism in mind. The scenario was extrapolated from events that have actually occurred in the real world, such as the food crisis of 2008-2009 or the recent string of hottest years and months on record.

Cargill economist Tim Bodin, who helped design the game and sat on the judges’ panel that evaluated the team’s moves, said he was surprised by the degree of cooperation. “Most people started out with a short-term perspective, but transitioned to long-term measure pretty quickly – they started working to strengthen resiliency instead of just putting out fires.”

The realism of the exercise exceeded expectations, said former U.S. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, who acted as a mentor to the players. “It’s much closer to the real world than you’d think. The people who play here are very committed and serious.”

Additional summaries can be found at the Food Chain Reaction and WWF websites.

Six Rules for Wargaming (and the challenges of experimental design)

WOTRMicah Zenko’s recent piece on the shortcomings of the (infamous) Millennium Challenge ‘02 wargame has spurred Gary Anderson and Dave Dilegge to offer some additional thoughts on the subject at War on the Rocks. Specifically, they suggest “six rules of wargaming” that MC 02 violated:

1. Never try to mix a seminar wargame, an experiment, and a real world exercise. You will end up with too many variables to analyze any single one properly.

The differences between the three types of events are widely accepted throughout the Department of Defense, and are provided by the U.S. Naval War College:

Peter Perla, author of The Art of Wargaming, defines a wargame as: “A warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operations of actual forces, in which the flow of events affects and is affected by decisions made during the course of those events by players representing the opposing sides.”

The Naval War College considers an exercise to be an “activity designed to rehearse or practice, with actual forces or assigned staff, specific sets of procedures” and an experiment as a repeatable scientific method designed to test a hypothesis.

As Zenko discusses in his account of MC ‘02, when the red team sank the blue American fleet, it was reconstituted several times so that the real world exercises could continue. Each time the blue force was reconstituted, red team capabilities were taken away until the blue team could finally hold its own. The reason given was that the live exercises had to continue. The control (white) cell promised red that the results of the previous runs would be noted in analysis. That did not happen.

2. Never allow the people whose concept is being tested to run a game. In MC ‘02, the JFCOM concepts personnel oversaw the white, red, and blue cells. There was no firewall between the concept developers and the game directors.  If the red team did something to embarrass the concept, the results could be overruled.

3. Never allow concept writers to run the analysis. This is akin to allowing students to grade their own tests, and that is what happened in MC ‘02. No independent analysis was ever released by the command.

4. Never claim that a single wargame has validated anything. Wargames will identify issues, and a series of them may fully discredit a truly bad concept. The Germans were still wargaming what became known as blitzkrieg to refine it even after they executed the concept in Poland. The result was an overhaul of their war plans for what became the successful invasion of France. The Naval War College tested the concepts that eventually won the Second World War against Japan in innumerable wargames. The word “validation” should not be used until after the war is won.

After MC ’02 ended, the JFCOM deputy commander claimed that the three concepts being “tested” were “validated.” This is what led the red team leader, retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, to go public on the flawed design and execution of the wargame.

5. A major wargame should be part of a program that lasts at least one year. No one-to-two-week game can adequately address all the objectives normally associated with concept development and experimentation. Elements of these objectives, as well as game design, methodology, and administration, should be put to the test in what are called “shaping events.” The earlier potential problem areas are identified and addressed, the better.

MC ‘02 did indeed have numerous shaping events to include a dry run (basically a rehearsal) that included a thinking and adaptive red team led by Van Riper. This event should have set off alarm bells as to what was in store for the blue team during the primetime event. Unfortunately, the results of the rehearsal were ignored and because these events were all seminar (conference-style) in nature, the ramifications of combining a wargame, an experiment, and an exercise were never addressed. Again, just as in the main effort, the concept developers should never run the analysis in shaping events.

6. Beware empowering defense contractors who work for concept developers and game designers, and “good idea fairies.” The former have a vested interest in pleasing their sponsors and the latter attempt to jump on the bandwagon as a program progresses and begins to garner increasing senior interest and press. For most of JFCOM’s brief history, contractors outnumbered active and reserve duty personnel as well as Department of Defense civilians. Contractors’ primary loyalties were to their government sponsor and to their company’s program manager, not to fulfilling MC ‘02’s stated objectives.

“Good idea fairies” come in many forms — active, civilian, and contractor — and have but one objective — using your efforts, grunt work, and money to highlight and “validate” their pet projects and/or wares.

That in turn led PAXsims associate editor Ellie Bartels to offer some thoughts of her own on Twitter:

Simulation & Gaming, June-August 2015


The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 46, 3-4 (June-August 2015) has now been published. It is a special symposium issue on system dynamics and simulation/gaming.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 6 November 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers. Nikola Adamus and Ryan Kuhns contributed material to this latest report.



War on the Rocks features a piece by Micah Zenko on the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 wargame, excerpted from his new book Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy. It makes for very interesting reading:

Since the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC ’02) concept-development exercise, run by the now-defunct U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), was leaked in the press 13 years ago, strong opinions have been expressed about its failure and lessons. When it was conducted, this exercise was the most ambitious and costly military simulation in American history. It pitted the U.S. military (with capabilities projected five years into the future) against a nameless potential adversary, with outcome intended to inform future strategy and procurement decisions. Controversy immediately arose when the opposition force, or red team, learned that the results were scripted to assure that the U.S. forces would win. Writing in September 2002, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof warned that it “should teach us one clear lesson relating to Iraq: Hubris kills.” (In that same column, Kristof admitted “I’m a wimp on Iraq: I’m in favor of invading, but only if we can win easily.”) MC ’02 was later popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, where the leader of the red team opposition force (OPFOR), retired Marine Corps three-star Paul Van Riper was praised for having “created the conditions for successful spontaneity” with a decision-making style that “enables rapid cognition.” More recently, a Marine Corps Gazette essay proclaimed that “JFCOM controllers changed the scenario” of MC ’02 and that the command “failed to understand the utility of the exercise and the feedback it provided.”

These perspectives are misleading, and generally told from one person’s view: Van Riper’s. Moreover, they lack important historical context and alternative perspectives about why the shortcomings of MC ’02 were inevitable, given congressionally required demands, misunderstandings of objectives, and unclear (and shifting) lines of authority. Furthermore, a more comprehensive account provides insights for how the military should think about, design, and conduct red team simulations. This article, adapted from my book, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, provides this more complete account as it is based upon interviews with most of the relevant senior officials, as well as the MC ’02 after-action report, which was only made public in 2010.

I’m reading the book at the moment, and will soon publish a review at PAXsims. I have to say, however, that I was a little disappointed that Zenko didn’t delve more deeply into MC ’02. Despite the introduction above, the account he gives is pretty much the standard one:

At the start of MC ’02, to fulfill the forced-entry requirement, blue issued red an eight-point ultimatum, of which the final point was surrender. Red team leader Van Riper knew his country’s political leadership could not accept this, which he believed would lead the blue forces to directly intervene. Since the George W. Bush administration had recently announced the “preemption doctrine,” Van Riper decided that as soon as a U.S. Navy carrier battle group steamed into the Gulf, he would “preempt the preemptors” and strike first. Once U.S. forces were within range, Van Riper’s forces unleashed a barrage of missiles from ground-based launchers, commercial ships, and planes flying low and without radio communications to reduce their radar signature. Simultaneously, swarms of speedboats loaded with explosives launched kamikaze attacks. The carrier battle group’s Aegis radar system — which tracks and attempts to intercept incoming missiles — was quickly overwhelmed, and 19 U.S. ships were sunk, including the carrier, several cruisers, and five amphibious ships. “The whole thing was over in five, maybe ten minutes,” Van Riper said.

The red team had struck a devastating blow against the blue team. The impact of the OPFOR’s ability to render a U.S. carrier battle group — the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy — militarily worthless stunned most of the MC ’02 participants. Van Riper described the mood as “an eerie silence. Like people didn’t really know what to do next.” Blue team leader Bell admitted that the OPFOR had “sunk my damn navy,” and had inflicted “an extremely high rate of attrition, and a disaster, from which we all learned a great lesson.”

Meanwhile, Kernan received an urgent phone call from Luck: “Sir, Van Riper just slimed all of the ships.” Kernan recognized that this was bad news because it placed at risk JFCOM’s ability to fulfill the remaining live-fire, forced-entry component of the exercise — a central component of MC ’02. The actual forces were awaiting orders at Fort Bragg, off the coast of San Diego, and at the Fort Irwin National Training Center. Kernan recalled, “I didn’t have a lot of choice. I had to do the forcible entry piece.” He directed the white cell to simply refloat the virtual ships to the surface. Bell and his blue team — now including the live-fire forces operating under his direction — applied the lessons from the initial attack and fended off subsequent engagements from the red team.

That’s true, but it also seems to miss part of what happened. Some of the things Van Riper did were beyond the capabilities of any US adversary, and probably should have been disallowed by the umpires. I have also been told by multiple participants that the overloaded White Cell failed to properly adjudicate defensive fires during the attack on the fleet—thus artificially amplifying its success. Finally, the point of the game was not to model a particular campaign or identify possible courses of action by Red, but rather to stress-test a number of ideas, approaches , and concepts—a process that would be derailed by an early catastrophic defeat of Blue.

None of this is to claim that MC ’02 was anything else but a poorly run game, which by all accounts it was. Indeed, similar criticism can be made of a great many DoD and service wargames, including many of the other high-profile Title X events. However, improving the analytical value of such games requires a not only a critical perspective, but also a nuanced understanding of all of the factors and constraints at work.


War on the Rocks also features a piece by Jonathan Altman on “What Texas Hold’em Can Teach About Geopolitics.”

Poker doesn’t immediately make you think of geopolitics. However, the game itself, specifically No-Limit Texas Hold ’em, is a remarkable analog for the international system as viewed through a realist lens. Not only is the construct of the game eerily similar to the geopolitical environment of today, but many of the strategies and choices in the game mirror those available to powers within the international system. Accordingly a more detailed examination of the game yields valuable insights into the affairs of nations in an anarchic world order. It’s time for future leaders to play poker instead of chess.



In recent weeks Graham Longley-Brown has posted a couple of interesting items on manual simulation and wargaming to his LBS blog:


Motherboard discusses a recent conflict simulation exploring the impact of drones on warfare, with a particular focus on their potential use by weaker powers and non-state armed groups:

The “Game of Drones” was designed to explore the different ways that drones could be used for tactical and strategic effect in a conflict.

The summit sought to address whether shooting down a drone might escalate tensions between countries or whether drones changed the character of a conflict by giving actors capabilities they didn’t have before. As more and more state and non-state actors acquire drones, the war game illustrated how drones could be used in creative ways to further political or military objectives.

“One of the things that we see with new technologies like drones, is that the marginal utility for that platform is much higher for weaker actors than strong actors,” Ben Fitzgerald, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and one of the organizers of the war game, said afterward. “For non-state actors, they get much more value in relative terms, because all of sudden they have airpower.”

The game was organized by the  Center for a New American Security.



The Center for International Maritime Security has introduced a new podcast entitled “Real Time Strategy,” which explores “the lessons and non-lessons of the simulations we use to both learn and entertain in the realm of military strategy, tactics, and history.” The first episode examines EVE Online, Civilization, Call of Duty, and other topics too.


The latest issue of the British Journal of Military History 2, 1 (2015) has an interesting article by Jorit Wintjes on “Europe’s Earliest Kriegsspiel? Book Seven of Reinhard Graf zu Solms’ Kriegsregierung and the ‘Prehistory’ of Professional War Gaming.”

The history of professional war gaming is usually understood to have begun around the turn of the 18th to the 19th century and mainly associated with the Prussian Kriegsspiel, with chess-based predecessors traceable down to a game published in 1664 by Christoph Weickmann. Yet already a century before Weickmann and more than two centuries before the invention of the Prussian Kriegsspiel a Hessian nobleman published a game of cards that was intended to be used both for preparing young noblemen for military decision-making and for supporting command and control in the field. It thus may well have been the earliest professional war game of the post-medieval period.


UPSEThe latest issue of the Journal of Political Science Education 11, 3 (July-September 2015) features an article by Michelle Hale Williams on “Using Simulations in Linked Courses to Foster Student Understanding of Complex Political Institutions.”

Political institutions provide basic building blocks for understanding and comparing political systems. Yet, students often struggle to understand the implications of institutional choice, such as electoral system rules, especially when the formulas and calculations used to determine seat allocation can be multilevel and complex. This study brings together an upper level Political Parties and Interest Groups course with an introductory Comparative Politics course through two-types of interaction: discussion board and a face-to-face election simulation. We administer a pretest and posttest to gauge student learning as a result of the simulation. We hypothesize that, by bringing together two courses with different levels (upper division and lower division) and emphases in bases of knowledge, we are able to enhance the experience of the election simulation to stimulate higher degrees of learning across both courses.

I have had quite a lot of success with simulations than span multiple classes: the annual Brynania civil war simulation at McGill involves students from POLI 450 (a senior undergraduate course on peacebuilding), POLI 650 (the graduate seminar version of the course), some students from POLI 227 (an introductory course in the comparative politics of developing countries), and on a few occasions an international journalism class at Concordia University.



McGill University’s Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning will be holding the Simnovate 2016 International Summit in Montreal on 6-7 May 2017 to “bring together simulation, education and innovation in the healthcare arena.”

With a focus on four domain areas (patient safety, pervasive learning, medical technologies, and global health), we are undertaking a broad review of current strengths and areas of focus, determination of future directions and zones of importance, and prescription of defined approaches to improve health care.

The summit is intended to be dynamic, interactive, engaging, and above all, an opportunity for the global community to come together with the common aim to improve the health of people across the world.

The official launch of Simnovate took place on 25 May 2015, at the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning. An academic symposium, followed by an innovation showcase, was well attended by the local McGill community.

The event also publicly launched the four domain groups, and the two co-chairs for each group. Since May 2015, the domain groups have each engaged seven to ten renowned individuals, who have passion, drive and enthusiasm for this process.

Each group is tasked with undertaking four teleconference calls, to be completed by January 2016. During each call, topics of the current status, future perspectives, and paths to achieve prospective gains, are discussed. The culmination of the teleconference discussions is first, for each group to produce a white paper, which summarizes the dialogue, thoughts and considerations of each groups’ conversations.

I certainly plan to attend.

The Different Games Conference will be held in New York on 8-9 April 2016, the organizers have issued a call for papers, presentations, and participants:

Over three years of presenting New York City’s first conference on diversity and inclusivity in games culture, Different Games has drawn more than 700 attendees to NYU’s Downtown Brooklyn campus, in addition to more than 100 arcade games and 150 presenters and speakers! We are thrilled to invite submissions for our fourth annual event which welcomes proposals from all members of the games community — whether designers, students, activists, researchers, journalists and others — to present as part of our two-day program.

yellow_logoSubmission Formats

Paper Presentations and Talks
We invite designers, academics and other creative minds to share recent projects as speakers on our conference panels. Possible submission topics may include, but are not limited to: post mortems, design methodology, reflections on playtesting, analysis/commentary on games content (theme, gender, sexuality, etc.), game reception, and game culture/communities.

Workshop or Breakout Groups
We invite topic-specific or exploratory discussions on challenges and solutions for promoting diversity and inclusion in the broader game community/communities and other pertinent subjects. Hands-on workshop sessions geared towards learning design, development or other creative and professional skills are also invited.

Arcade Games
We welcome submissions from designers interested in showcasing their game in the Different Games arcade, including pieces that will be in (beta) or playtesting phase as well as those further along in the development process. Analog games, non screen-based digital games and other types of media such as short films, installations or interactive art related to the themes of the conference are welcome as well.

You’ll find more details at their website. The deadline for most submissions is 15 December.


Rock, Paper, Shotgun reports on Top Secret, a forthcoming game inspired by the Snowden leaks and played by email. According to the game’s Kickstarter page:

Inspired by the incredible true story of the biggest leak in US history, Top Secret is a branching non-linear interactive fiction game, played in real time, by email.

A fresh recruit to the National Security Agency (NSA), you have a new mission: find out who’s leaking TOP SECRET documents to the press. Stop them by whatever means necessary.

A single selector (phone number, email address, name) is all it takes for your team to surveil a target. It’s your job to decipher the intel, and follow the trail to its source.

But surveillance has a price…

In the paranoid world of the NSA, anyone can become a target, and soon your friends are in the firing line.

Everyone has something to hide, will you reveal it?

The game’s webpage also has a link to a demo.


At Unicorn Booty (yes, there’s such a place), Matt Keeley discusses the 1965 card game Nuclear War, and the broader issue of playing the apocalypse.



In The New Yorker, Jon Michaud discusses “The Tangled Cultural Roots of Dungeons & Dragons” through the lens of Michael Witwer’s new biography of D&D inventor Gary Gygax, Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons.

GAME ON! at Bishop’s University

Next Friday I’ll be participating in the GAME ON! conference at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Québec, where we’ll be discussing the potential contribution of simulation and gaming in the classroom. We’ll be running a game of AFTERSHOCK too!

You’ll find full details below.


AFTERSHOCK in Springfield


While Missouri might be better known for tornadoes than tremors,* last week Missouri State University was the scene of a major earthquake—or, more accurately, a game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game, sponsored by the Department of Political Science.

At first the earthquake seemed to overwhelm aid teams from Carana, the United Nations, the NGO community, and the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force, but as they became more organized and the volume of relief supplies grew they all made increasingly good progress. HADR-TF moved quickly to repair Galasi International Airport. They were rather slower to repair the Galasi port, which caused some friction with the government. A cholera outbreak in District 2 was quickly contained and dealt with. Rapid needs assessment was complimented by more in-depth surveys in several districts, facilitating planning and resource allocation.

With 37 minutes left to play, and six weeks into the crisis, the players collective (

Six weeks into the crisis and with 37 minutes left to play, the teams’ collective (“Relief Points”) score is still in the red— although not by much (-3). The UN and HADR-TF have negative individual (“Operations Points”) scores too. The airport has been fully repaired, and HADR-TF has brought in the necessary materials to begin repairs to the port too. Some health and other social infrastructure has been reestablished in most districts. At the moment, teams are primarily participating in the health and WASH cluster meetings, as well as undertaking front-line tasks in the various districts of the capital.

By the end of two hours, all of the players had positive scores. Well done!

* * *

*It turns out that MSU was an even more appropriate place for a game of AFTERSHOCK than I realized at the time.  As Robert Mosher has pointed out to me, what is now Missouri was the epicentre of the 1811–12 New Madrid earthquakes. Indeed, the New Madrid Seismic Zone has been responsible for four of the largest quakes ever recorded in North America. 

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